The Enduring Appeal of Gatsby

When I heard a new screen version of The Great Gatsby was being planned, I rolled my eyes and tutted audibly. As a Fitzgerald flag-waver, I was not only frustrated by the continued avoidance of his other fine works but was also grieved that Baz Luhrmann was at the helm.

As much as I enjoyed his production of Romeo & Juliet and admired his eccentric Moulin Rouge, I loathed Australia and the crucial issue with any production of Fitzgerald’s work is that it requires a subtlety of vision; subtlety is not something I associate with Mr Luhrmann. Add this to the sad fact that the true magic of Fitzgerald’s work – his glorious writing – is impossible to transfer to the screen and the prospect of yet another stab at this seminal work seems to me to be decidedly unwelcome.

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However, there is one element of the production that I am looking forward to which no ham-fisted script, error of casting or inappropriate score can destroy; the costume. The last motion picture Gatsby, featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was famously costumed by Ralph Lauren. While the film itself was relatively weak, it remains a movie of classic style – on more than one occasion, I have enjoyed glimpsing scenes of it in a London bar (muted) behind the bottles of Grey Goose and Laphroaig. As good as Lauren’s costuming was, I expect the work on this version to be even better. Why? For the simple reason that it will be a more accurate representation of the era; it might lack a little of the 1970s pastel palette, but what it loses in floral appeal it will hopefully make up for in authenticity and detail.

Costuming in film has improved so much in the last 30 years; photographic archives are more readily available and more money has been made available, not just for the costumes themselves but for the research and hard work that goes in to developing them. Though many films have a tinge of the eras in which they have been produced, some period dramas are so accurately and beautifully costumed that it is only possible to tell the age of the feature by the age of the lead. Cameras can capture the most subtle texture differences; a silk dupion, a wool flannel, a crisp linen. A well costumed film, now more than ever, promises to be a gorgeous feast for the eyes and the prospect of Gatsby and an ensemble of moneyed, Jazz Age Long Islanders being given the latest touch of the classic ‘Gatsby’ aesthetic is terribly exciting.

So what is this classic ‘Gatsby’ aesthetic? Isn’t it just the preppy way Lauren represented him in the Seventies and continues to plug now? Well, yes and no. Lauren might have made that Gatsby, but that Gatsby also made Lauren. In fact, he always existed; the aloof looking chap in a dusty old photograph with slicked hair, a blue blazer, club stripe tie, white trousers, spectator shoes and horn-rimmed round sunglasses. He was an invention of his era, not of the movie industry. Lauren was simply able to look at the way men used to dress and say; “This is how he should be; this is Gatsby.” As most of it takes place on Long Island sound, I expect some sporty and nautical elements to the costume; plenty of white foundation and red-lipstick for Daisy, plenty of blue and white for Gatsby, some white bucks, spectators, tortoiseshell glasses and a vast array of suits including a loud blue pinstripe with peaked lapels, double breasted waistcoat and turn-ups, pocket watches, fedoras and boaters – they were still very popular in this period – rounded collars and, hopefully, full white-tie.

According to reports, Leonardo DiCaprio is playing the eponymous hero of the piece. There is sufficient precedent (Titanic, The Aviator) to suggest that he will prove to be an excellent Gatsby, if only as a splendid clothes horse.

A Stylish Movie: American Gigolo

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American Gigolo (1980) stars Richard Gere as Julian Kay, an escort for wealthy women who is framed for the murder of one of his clients and the theft of her precious jewels. The movie was written and directed by Paul Schrader (of Taxi Driver fame) and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

American Gigolo is often listed among the top style movies of all time. The movie burst on the scene at the end of the bell-bottom disco era and stood as a preview of the narcissistic and hedonistic decade that followed. It is also the movie that introduced the world to the Armani suit and propelled Giorgio Armani, who created Gere’s wardrobe, to instant stardom.

The movie’s focus on luxury clothing becomes immediately obvious when one of the first scenes has Gere trying on tailored clothing in a high-end men’s store. Gere’s wardrobe includes soft, unstructured suits in silk, linen and Italian cotton. In a complete departure from the style of the 70s, Gere wears small collars, narrow ties, skinny belts and surprisingly high-waisted trousers. The movie ushered in slim Italian clothing as the style for the 80s and influenced the dress of an entire generation of men.

One scene that epitomizes the self-absorption and greed of the decade has Gere pulling out clothing from his immense closet and hyper-organized drawers. He then obsesses over the details of each outfit as he lays out Armani shirts, knit ties and jackets on his bed.

One casual outfit that I found to be particularly interesting included light blue jeans with a ribbon belt, a pale blue shirt, an unbuttoned double-breasted gray jacket with patch pockets and brown boots.

Unfortunately, where the movie shines in style, it lacks in substance. Most of the movie is an excuse to watch Gere (who is very fit and tan) dress and undress, and cruise around town in a Mercedes convertible. It does not even become apparent that the movie is a murder mystery until the first hour is past. Nevertheless, the movie includes some good music and provides a window to a now-bygone era of indulgence and excess.

A Stylish Movie: Bonnie and Clyde

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Bonnie and Clyde (1967) stars Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, a bored small-town girl, and Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, a small-time ex-con. The movie romanticizes the couple’s string of bank robberies that made newspaper headlines and caught the imagination of the Depression-era public.

Faye Dunaway is lovely in pencil skirts, berets and silk scarves. Warren Beatty is equally stylish in double-breasted suits, vests, spectator shoes and hats. As a touch of sprezzatura, his shirt collars are often askew. It’s odd to watch them rob banks while so well turned out.

One small detail in Beatty’s wardrobe struck me as particularly stylish. Early in the movie he takes Dunaway to town for a coca-cola. While they chat he chews on the end of a wooden matchstick. Several more identical matchsticks are tucked into his hatband. It’s a nifty personal touch like Gianni Agnelli wearing a watch on the outside of his shirt cuff.

Even members of the supporting cast exhibit interesting style. Michael J. Pollard plays C.W. Moss, a slow-witted auto mechanic turned getaway driver. He is often seen in blue jeans, chambray shirt, blue jean jacket, neckerchief and newsboy cap. That’s pretty stylish dress for changing the oil in your car.

Gene Hackman plays Barrow’s older brother Buck. In an interesting contrast, he mixes a tattered brown leather bomber jacket with gray pants, white button-down shirt and tie.

In addition to being a stylish movie, Bonnie and Clyde is entertaining to watch. The movie was nominated for numerous Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Costume Design. In 1998 the movie was placed at #27 on a list of the 100 best American movies according to the American Film Institute.

For some entertainment and classic sartorial inspiration I recommend you watch Bonnie and Clyde.

Style Movie: The King’s Speech

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It is over a year since I last contributed to this series. The simple truth of the lapse is that though I must have seen over 50 films in that period, none of them stirred anything inside me which was capable of inspiration.

None, that is, until I saw The King’s Speech.

A film that has received plaudits from far and wide – from the New York Times to Her Majesty herself – it is easy to regard The King’s Speech ‘superficially’ as simply an excellent and uplifting true tale of triumph. However beneath this ‘surface’, it is also a film which manages to preach elegance without once ascending to the pulpit, a film which indulges and educates the viewer in inter-war sartoria without excess showiness – a wardrobe performance worthy of it’s regal title.

Colin Firth, first as the Duke of York and then as George VI, is the picture of patrician sartorial cleanliness; matte wool suits (no shiny tack in these decades), soft collars and thin silk foulard ties. In fact his wardrobe is so achingly classic, it’d be difficult to say anything in his ensembles was ‘dated.’

Geoffrey Rush, by comparison, is more extravagantly dressed – if extravagant is the correct word – as he adorns himself with bow ties and chalk stripes; the kind of natty get-up you might see Manolo Blahnik strutting around in. Still, though his dress is more individual, it is no less worthy of the ‘timeless’ award.

Both men, giants on the screen, advance the quiet but strong case for such careful sartorial thought that to see them accepting awards for performances in their own clothing is something of a disappointment.

This happy period of men’s clothing is pleasing to the eye. So much so that it provides a raison d’être to entire brands – Hackett, Ralph Lauren – and as such it is always ‘with us’ to some extent. Perhaps it is this reason why the costumes in The King’s Speech, aside from those of Helena Bonham Carter, seem somewhat familiar. They do not distract because they are both a happy harmony of the best of historic men’s clothing and that which we know and use today.

There were even subtle details which tickled me as much as the excellent script; the fact that Geoffrey Rush’s wardrobe was limited in size whereas Colin Firth’s was gigantic (I didn’t see a repeat garment) was true to character, as well as the fact that Geoffrey Rush’s trousers were of inferior tailoring (too long) and that there were no noticeable problems with Firth’s at all. All these subtle differences were more indicative of the gulf between the gentlemen’s positions in the world; one a speech therapist, the other a royal prince.

My favourite moment in the film came when, having told his children a strange story about a penguin, Colin Firth lurched onto the floor, in white tie, to hug them good night at which point his white elasticated waistcoat came undone. However, instead of clipping the scene and pasting in one in which his waistcoat was correctly fastened, Hooper allowed us to see a marginally unkempt prince momentarily fiddling to restore his waistcoat. Natural and utterly charming.

Stylish Television: Boardwalk Empire

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Boardwalk Empire is an original television series that premiered this fall on HBO. The show follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) who is a powerful politician and gangster in control of Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition.  The show was created by Terence Winter, the Emmy Award-winning writer of The Sopranos. The first episode was directed by Academy Award Winning Director Martin Scorsese.

The shows producers have done an incredible job of recreating 1920 Atlantic City, including an elaborate wardrobe from this Golden Age of Style. Most of us are accustomed to seeing this clothing in black and white photographs from the era. Boardwalk Empire brings the era to life in full, accurate color. Through extensive research of period fabrics and colored catalogs, the program’s costume designer, John Dunn, discovered a surprisingly vibrant palate of color.

While much of the production has relied heavily on vintage clothing, period clothing was made for most of the principal cast. Martin Greenfield Clothiers, a New York tailoring institution that manufactures high-quality garments for stores like Brooks Brothers, was selected to make costumes based on Dunn’s investigations. New York Daily News reported that a team of 120 tailors worked for almost a year to turn period tweeds and heavy worsteds into at least 200 costumes for about 68 different characters.

For an epic, full-color perspective on the Golden Age of Style, check out HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.